Wednesday, February 27, 2002

Shadows of Aggar

Chris Anne Wolfe
Pride Productions

Diana n'Athena is ready to go home. An "Amazon" from the all female planet of "dey Sorormin" (which Wolfe translates as the Sisterhood), Diana is a sociologist employed by the Terran Intergalactic Empire for the last 20 years as a Cultural Liaison and Feild Operative. Approaching forty, Diana has served the last five years on Aggar, a patriarchal, pre-industrial, semi-feudal planet located on the Empire's border. Over six foot tall, lean, strong and brown-eyed, Diana must pass as male to work effective on Aggar. Such a charade is not uncommon for Amazons serving on "primitive" planets, but it does wear on their spirits. Facing her last mission before she can return to her home world, Diana must locate and rescue a Terran pilot. He carries information that may mean the salvation of the Empire which is on the brink of war.

After years of working alone, Diana is not pleased when Aggar's ruling Council of Ten assigns her a native "Shadowmate." Shadows are individuals trained for years to act as guides, protectors, linguists, trackers, companions and whatever else is needed to aide the individual whom the Council has determined is important to the future of Aggar. Such assignments are one of the ways the Council "tips the balance" of fate for pivotal individuals and gently guides the planet's future.

Diana's Shadow, Elana is particularly special. In addition to her training and expertise, she bears the rare "Blue Sight." This extrasensory gift (genetically linked with blue eyes) allows her to read people's intent via their aura and create illusions. For years Elana has been training to become a Shadow. For the last five years she's been experiencing dreamlike visions of the Amazon that she is to Shadow.

Shadows of Aggar is a classic heroic quest. As such, the journey itself, what happens to both women during the trek and what they learn from the various encounters, is as important as the result of the quest. -- Although having the end of the empire as it is known hang in the balance does build the suspense! -- There are some similarities between Aggar and some other fantasy realms. Yet these parallels reflect cultural archetypes and Wolfe, who died in 1997, created some interesting, unique details and characteristics for three cultures: Aggar, Amazon and Terran. For example, imagine a race of humans whose skin color changes with excitement or exertion, thus making the racial differences we know, moot. Furthermore, Wolfe created the basics of a language for the "dey Sorormin" and provided a glossary of words from Aggar and the Sisterhood in the back for reference.

"Shadows" was originally released in 1991, and this reader has returned to it at least twice in the last decade. The story and characters hold up to re-reading. The same is true of Wolfe's second Aggar novel, Fires of Aggar. Happily, the publisher has made a commitment to keep Wolfe's titles in print. The new covers of both titles are disappointing and distracting. Yet, to coin a phrase, don't judge the book by it's current cover. If you like fantasy stories with strong female leads that explore complex issues of gender roles, societal pressures to conform and their impacts on the individual -- not to mention a good old fashioned adventure with a touch of lavender romance -- you'll enjoy Shadows of Aggar. Pick up a copy of it and its companion book, Fires of Aggar.

-MJ Lowe

Friday, February 15, 2002

Tumbleweed Fever

L.J. Maas
Yellow Rose Books

In Tumbleweed Fever, a debut novel by L. J. Maas, it's the late 1800s and cowhands in the Oklahoma territory have been finding notes tied to blowing tumbleweed. The notes, apparently written by a woman, ring with a romantic longing and loneliness. Trying to figure out who is the author of these missives, has become a popular passtime at the local saloons and ranch hands who are enamored with the mystery are said to suffer from "Tumbleweed Fever." One of those ranch hands, or "riders," who has fallen under the spell of these notes is Devlin Brown. Tall, dark and deadly, Devlin is a reformed outlaw who is struggling to leave her past behind.

Much to her surprise, Devlin finds herself coming to the aid of Sarah Tolliver, the recently widowed mother of two children, who is trying to continue on the ranch she and her late husband homesteaded. Intelligent and capable, not to mention stubborn and articulate, the small, blond widow is not what Devlin expects her to be. Indeed, over the year the two women spend working the Double Deuce Ranch together, Devlin finds the attraction she held for the mystery writer of the tumbleweed notes being displaced by her growing respect, attraction, and love for Sarah. Readers of Tumbleweed Fever might notice from the characters and the redemption theme plot, that it is a "traditional uber-Xena" story. In addition to characters, there are a few direct references to the Xena TV show that fans will recognize, including the "soulmate" concept. Interestingly the American West locale is apparently a fairly popular uber setting. This reader knows of at least two other published uber novels set in the 19th century American West.

Of Maas' current three novels, this first effort is not her best work. The plotting is not as tight; there are some odd incongrencies; a few story lines are not as fleshed out as one might wish; and the uber references are sometimes detracting. However, with each novel since Tumbleweed Fever, Maas' storytelling improves. None So Blind and Meridio's Daughter, Maas' second and third novels have much fewer of these faults and are much better entertainment.
Even with these mild annoyances, Tumbleweed Fever is a very engaging novel. One can't help but enjoy the charm of Sarah and her family, to root for the triumph of Devlin over her past, and finally relish the couple's realization that their love is mutual. The plot is fast moving and interesting, including depictions of a band of Choctaws (who remind us that condemnation of women who love women is a Judeo-Christian concept that did not enjoy sway in most Native American cultures). This reader is looking forward to Maas' soon to be released sequel, "Prairie Fire" -- Maas' first unposted novel -- to find out what happens with Sarah and Devlin as they continue their life together.
-MJ Lowe

Friday, February 8, 2002

Love Shook My Heart 2

Jess Wells, Editor
Alyson Books

Despite the sensual and somewhat provocative, cover, Love Shook My Heart 2, like it's predecessor, is not an anthology of erotica. Rather it's a touching sampler of stories with lesbian characters from a range of writers. The stories cover a spectrum of eras and are peopled with women of all ages.

The settings range from the very contemporary, urban America as in the cyberworld of "Reply" to a thoughtful, if saddening interpretation of wise women in Medieval Europe in Jess Wells' "Jacqueline." With characters who span adolescence -- as Devvie in Deborah J. Archer's "At Fourteen"-- to a widowed octogenarian -- who discovers new feelings for a woman in her nursing home in Karen X. Tulchinsky's touching story, "Penny a Point."

Amusingly, Barbie dolls have cameos in several of the stories with childhood and adolescent characters subjecting Barbie to everything from kidnapping and hostage situations in Barth's "Lovingkindness," to being photographed while being devoured by a poodle in "My Dead Aunt's Vodka." Several of the stories have a delightful sense of humor as in Anderson's "Kiss of Death, Inc.," where a rather jaded photographer specializes in capturing those celebratory moments in the lives of lesbian couples, all of whom she tells us will split up eventually. "Her Clear Voice Undid Me" will have anyone who has worked in retail, particularly in lower socio/economic areas, chuckling at the absurdity of the system and encouraged by Cooper's sense of fair play and justice as the Low-Cost's "slowest shopper."

Ta'Shia Asanti brings Bessie Smith to life for her first trip to Europe and first lesbian relationship in "Bessie and Sweet Colleen." M.Christian reminds us that we need to be true to ourselves in "The One I Left Behind;" while a cancer survivor is reminded that she needs to respect herself in Bellerose's "The GirlsClub." Kristin Steele's "Recycled" is a sweet little story where Morgan finds herself struggling with the death of her father, and, more stressfully, the survival of her mother. Morgan also finds herself charmed by Kate, an artist driving a very big truck.

Not all of the 28 stories in Love Shook My Heart 2, touched this reader. However, the range of style and settings is broad enough to provide some interest and pleasure for most readers. For those who like short stories, certainly there are more than enough satisfying stories to justify the purchase.

-MJ Lowe

Tuesday, February 5, 2002

Back to Salem

Alex Marcoux
Harrington Park Press

For better and worse, Back to Salem reads like a Hollywood action suspense movie. The "better" part is that Back to Salem is fast paced and engaging reading with several plot twists that keep the reader guessing. The "worse" part that is that some of the themes are poorly presented; some plot lines are unnecessarily complicated (not to mention, a bit far fetched); and some character elements are annoying.

Jessie Mercer is an openly lesbian, best selling author and screen writer living near Los Angeles whose latest best selling book is to be made into a movie. This film interpretation is important to Jessie because this novel is different from her other books. The story practically wrote itself and for the first time she's written a novel with a lesbian as the leading character. In the novel's plot, a lesbian falls in love with a prominent actress whose husband is killed. The lesbian is framed and imprisoned for the murder. Jessie is pleased that she has been asked to help consult with the film's production.

Taylor Andrews, a popular singer, is auditioning for one of the lead roles in the movie. Taylor finds herself drawn to Jessie in a strangely intense attraction. Jessie has similar feelings and she believes she knows why. The two women become friends. Taylor will draw on that friendship after the sudden and suspicious death of her husband. Eventually Taylor surrenders to her "mystical" attraction to Jessie and the two become lovers. Meanwhile Jessie is a suspect in the death of Taylor's husband.

Annoyingly, Taylor repeatedly assures herself and others that she's not gay and isn't attracted to other women, just to Jessie. Loving Jessie is okay because Taylor comes to believe that she is her "soul mate." However unintentionally, this justification felt unnecessary and homophobic. If Taylor really isn't lesbian (or at least bi), surely she wouldn't consummate her feelings for Jessie in a sexual manner. Since she did (although the reader is only treated to oblique references and "PG rated kisses") doesn't that at least make Taylor bisexual in practice?

There are a number of interesting twists and the action moves quickly with several very dramatic revelations at the end. This reader is willing to suspend her disbelieve for a well spun story. Yet I can think of several examples of the reincarnation theme, some with lesbian characters, that have been done better --- with more plausible history and folklore, more humor, better romance, less homophobia, and more enchanting magic.-- Don't try to make all of the themes and threads make sense, because some are just too unlikely, like the Egyptian mythology and Colonial Salem connection. Some of these flaws are disappointing because they are the same ones made in Montegue's last novel. Having said that, Back to Salem is enjoyable if you think of it as a summer released action movie. It's fast paced and it makes a good book to take on vacation or read on the treadmill.

-MJ Lowe